Salt Lake City
Mini-Review: Pixel Tactics
This was originally published on Space-Biff!, where I'm in the process of reviewing all the entries in the Minigame Library. If you enjoy this writeup, please head over there for more reviews and such!
So far in our look at the Minigame Library from Level 99 Games, we’ve seen the “surprisingly cerebral” Master Plan, the interesting but ultimately failed experimental team game Blades of Legend, and the not-quite-a-game-but-it’s-good-so-who-cares Infinity Dungeon. Between the inclusion of the first and last of those, I already regard the price of admission into this Library as a pretty good deal.
Well, buckle up! Because today we’re looking at two-person dueling game Pixel Tactics, which placed alongside even the games I’ve liked from this set, is a (mini) giant among men.
The first thing you’ll probably notice when you break out Pixel Tactics is that there’s a ton of information on each card. There are so many little colored boxes and numbers and my goodness, is that an entirely different unit on the bottom of the card that my first two attempts to learn the game fizzled out when I noticed something shiny and simple out of the corner of my eye and wandered off to investigate that instead. As a tactile learner, I usually figure out board games by sitting down with both the manual and the components and pawing through the jumble blind-man style, and Pixel Tactics looks significantly more complicated than it really is.
Which is why to start I’m only showing you the bottom third of the cards. See, the first thing you do when beginning a game of Pixel Tactics is draw five, flip them over, and pick one little dude/dudette to be your army’s leader.
First of all, it’s impressive that each and every of your 25 cards (your opponent has an identical deck) is a potential leader in addition to being a regular soldier in your forces. Second — and even more impressively — every single one of them is distinct, and breaks the game in some hideous way that will leave your opponent’s face slack with shock, vaguely muttering about imbalance and unfairness, right up until the moment you lean forward and read her leader’s hideous ability and she starts making fun of that thing you’re doing with your mouth.
Cadenza, for instance, armors her heroes, making them significantly harder to kill. Magdelina Larington gradually levels up her army until they’re an unstoppable combine harvester and you’re their glistening field of ripe wheat. Luc Van Gott gives you extra actions each turn, Regicide Heketch kills enemy troops before they get a chance to fight back, Lesdanra Machan can flood the play area with free troops, and Zaamassal Kett hands out ranged weapons to his minions. Not to mention the reanimator whose dead fight on, or the bastard who steals the corpses of your fallen and brings them back to life, or the jerk who makes you play with your hand revealed. There are all sorts of terrifying options, all of which will make both you and your opponent squirm in dread at the thought of the coming fight.
Now let’s flip the cards right side up and take a look at the regular heroes.
As you can see, in addition to their attack strength and life points, each one has four colored text boxes. The first three indicate what that soldier’s ability is when placed in each of three “waves,” the positions in your army that surround your leader — and it’s your primary goal to keep that leader protected while also trying to bash the enemy leader, so the careful placement of these heroes to protect one another and set up deadly combos is the most important facet to master in Pixel Tactics.
For example, the Fighter shown above has “Intercept” when he’s in the front (Vanguard) row, which means he keeps ranged attacks from sailing overhead to hit the troops behind him. On the other hand, if you were to play him to the left or right of your leader, he’d instead have +2 attack strength; in the back row, he’d be even deadlier, provided the column in front of him is clear so no friendlies block his attack. So not only is each unit split between being a regular hero and a leader, but every troop can also take on three distinct forms in combat.
That final purple text box is the unit’s “Order” ability — another optional use of each hero that sees you discarding the card to cast it like a spell. These are usually shockingly powerful, like the Fighter’s ability to do as much as 15 damage in one fell strike; though the downside is that the card is lost to you, and once your draw pile has run out, you’ll have to make do with what few cards you have remaining in your hand and on the table.
If all those abilities seem a little intimidating, have no fear, because you don’t actually need to worry about all of them all the time. Play progresses one wave at a time, so in one round both players will take two actions during their Vanguard Wave, then their Flank Wave, then the Rear Wave; then you switch first and second player markers and do it all over again. Furthermore, you can only attack with heroes who were in that wave at the start of it; you can only recruit new heroes into the current wave as well. This means the chances of getting bogged down aren’t as pronounced as they would be otherwise.
It’s also nice that there are only six possible actions, which keeps the game from ever crossing the threshold between deep and complicated play. In short, your options are summed up by this card:
These actions are so simple that I can only think of four clarifications to offer:
1. Any hero can make melee attacks, though only so long as there aren’t any friendlies in front of them to block the attack. These can target the front unit in any of the enemy’s columns.
2. Ranged attacks can target anyone, unless the enemy column you’re targeting is protected by someone with the “Intercept” ability, in which case you can’t attack past that hero.
3. Units don’t die the instant they take lethal damage. Rather, wounds are checked at the end of every wave, so the second player will get an opportunity for his heroes to fight back (or a chance to heal them) before they expire.
4. When a unit is killed, it is flipped face-down and becomes a “corpse.” These just stick around clogging up your play area. Hence the “Clear Corpse” action.
With just these simple options, there’s incredible potential for powerful combinations. Like a recent match between me and Somerset where I had wiped out so many of her heroes that I thought victory was assured — until she used a beefy back-row Fighter and an encouraging Overlord to deal a whopping 16 damage to my leader and end the match in a draw as both our generals succumbed at the same time. Or the time I used a Vampire to transfer my damage to her best heroes without any chance of repercussion, and had an Assassin add gradual damage to her leader throughout the whole game. Or placing a Witch behind a corpse to earn a massive boost to her attack power, or using a Priestess to bring a Pyromancer back to life three times.
Better yet, a full game is played over the course of multiple matches (best of three or five), so you’ll see multiple leaders and hero combinations in the course of just one sitting.
There are so many little things that stand out about Pixel Tactics — the dozens of powers, the way everything feels overpowered but ultimately balances out, the fact that this “minigame” is actually one of the deepest and most combo-intensive games I’ve played all year… it’s absolutely wonderful and original. I’ve seen it compared to Summoner Wars, though the parallel doesn’t bear out. Beyond the fact of your units being printed on cards, and that there’s a grid system (which works 100% differently), there really isn’t any similarity. Pixel Tactics is doing its own thing, and doing it really well. It’s easily the best yet from the Minigame Library. I can’t recommend it enough.
Oh, and incidentally, Pixel Tactics 2 is coming later this summer. I can’t wait.
I enjoyed this review, and the other Minigame Library reviews. I've played one game of Pixel Tactics and am interested in the whole series, so I appreciate your writeups!